Those operating contact centers have always been under a tremendous amount of pressure to assist customers coming forward with questions or complaints about products and services. When the person reaching out is struggling with suicidal thoughts, however, the caller experience takes on an entirely different urgency and meaning.
Earlier this month, the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline formally rolled out a new three-digit number, 988. Beyond easing the ability to connect with trained counsellors, the introduction of 988 aims to offer 24/7 access to mental health support. This could include dispatching special responders who can reduce the workload of law enforcement and emergency department visits.
Kyle Kinney, program manager for Nebraska-based non-profit Boys Town, outlined the three pillars behind the 988 strategy in a webinar hosted earlier this year. These include having someone to talk to, having someone respond and having someplace to go to in terms of crisis stabilization services.
“We’ve realized there are a number of professionals that have never called the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number before — either not for themselves, or, more importantly, for their clients or consumers and the folks that they work with,” Kinney said. “There has been this expression of hesitation in coaching their clients to utilize the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We really want to alleviate some of that (lack of) comfort level and familiarity.”
When increased call volumes affect mental health
For approximately 200 contact centers across the country, the transition to the 988 number also represents a potential spike in activity, which has already been reported in some regions. Companies like Vonage are already active in working with some of these non-profit organizations to evaluate their current infrastructure and determine what it will take to provide access without wait times, and to juggle outreach across not only calls but online chat or texting.
“It’s not just a matter of getting someone trained on how to handle these kinds of conversations, but training in how to use the right tools as well,” Savinay Berry, Vonage’s executive vice-president of product and engineering, told 360 Magazine. “Some of these people within the counselling field have never been contact center agents as such. It’s going to take some time, but having the 988 number is certainly a step in the right direction.”
Some states have already made millions of dollars in funding available to organizations responding to 988 calls. That could ease the process of upgrading legacy IT infrastructure to technologies such as interactive voice response (IVR) or even sentiment analysis. But not all non-profits have significant in-house expertise in this area. Berry suggested there was only one natural place to start.
“The tech stack is such that it needs to be cloud-based. There’s no choice,” he said. “Sometimes, you might need hundreds of people (responding to 988 calls) depending on the demand. You need the cloud in order to scale, and (the system) has to be easy to use, because agents won’t have time to deal with complex or confusing offerings.”
Of course, the technology to enhance the caller experience is not limited to the individual agent but the organization as whole. Matt Matsui, chief product officer at Minneapolis, Minn.-based CX intelligence provider Calabrio, described how its platform can organize inbound contact center activity according to skill groups – in other words, people with the right expertise to handle a particular call. This is something that traditional brands have been using for years to escalate particularly difficult customer situations to agents with specific expertise, for instance.
“We can create skill groups out of just about anything. And with that there is an algorithm that can help us understand how to distribute a call, and to who should get the call,” he said. “This basic concept (of routing by priority) is something that contact center industry as a whole actually does very well.”
A data-driven approach to 988 services
Although much of the 988 data will have to remain anonymous, Berry said contact centers will also likely look to deploy a customer relationship management (CRM) system to track overall key performance indicators. For example, Vonage began working with one of the largest suicide prevention projects and organizations for LGBTQ people in the world, the Trevor Project, when it was deploying Salesforce’s CRM. Vonage has integrations with Salesforce to help contend with increased call volumes and to prevent contact center information from being siloed from other parts of an organization. (Disclosure: I provide content marketing services to Salesforce in Canada.)
“I’m sure then their volume is going to increase even more (with the launch of the 988 number),” Berry said. “We’re standing with them every day to support them as they’re going through this process.”
Matsui noted that 988 contact centers are making this transition at a time when traditional agent experiences are already undergoing considerable transformation. Offering flexible options to let them work remotely, for example, or self-scheduling capabilities could be critical in order to provide the staffing contact centers will need to best serve their callers.
More advanced options could include tools, which Matsui said Calabrio offers, that can offer a sort of “stress index” and predict the level of pressure an agent is operating under.
“If you just got yelled at by four different people over the last three hours, you’re probably not in the best frame of mind to be empathetic and to really create the best relationship possible,” he said. An agent in that situation could be moved from taking phone calls to outreach via online chat, for instance, which may cause less anxiety.
“Or I can maybe give you an unscheduled 15-minute break because I recognize that the interactions that you’ve had, and the quality of the content of the calls, have cause your stress levels to rise,” he said.
Calabrio has been closely studying what Matsui calls “the half-life of stress” – in other words, how long it may take for an agent to decompress after a particularly difficult encounter. This can all go towards improving the outcomes for both agents and callers.
988 contact centers will no doubt save lives, but there will be other metrics to consider. This could be the volume of repeat calls, for example, whereas Berry pointed out that traditional measurements such as average handle time won’t make sense. In fact, he said more traditional contact centers may wind up learning from how the non-profits involved in the 988 rollout make strategic use of the technologies and tools available to them.
“I think there’s too much emphasis on traditional contact center metrics, which are to the detriment of the customer experience,” he said. “We are seeing a transition from things like handle time and wait time to metrics that are much more focused on what the customer actually went through. And as those metrics change, I think that will translate into better experiences as well.”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.